The inhabitants of ancient southern Mesopotamia—that is, of the region extending approximately from modern-day Baghdad in Iraq, to the shore of the Persian Gulf—are designated Babylonians. The name is derived from the place name transmitted in cuneiform script as Babili (already misinterpreted in the late third millennium as “gate of God”); the Greek form of the name is Babylon. From the early second millennium BCE until into the Hellenistic period, this city southeast of modern Baghdad was a royal residence and one of the most important urban centers in Mesopotamia.

Origin and Chronology.

The region of Babylonia belongs to the oldest, highly civilized areas in the world. Although Babylonia is part of the Old World desert belt, an urban culture based on irrigation systems constructed there had already developed in the fourth millennium. Beginning in the early third millennium, there is archaeological as well as written evidence for the existence of city-states in the area, which were developed by a population that spoke Sumerian (i.e., not Semitic; Sumer is the name for the southern portion of Babylonia). Semitic-speaking groups from middle Mesopotamia (Akkadians, after the source-language name for northern Babylonia) were increasingly added to this population. The origin of the Sumerians is unknown. There is proof of Semitic-speaking groups as early as the so-called Early Dynastic period (c. 2800–2400 BCE); toward the end of this period they attained greater significance because of an increased rate of immigration from the peripheral areas of the Syrian desert steppe (possibly as the result of the onset of a dry period). At the time of Sargon (c. 2340–2284 BCE) the Akkadians became the political bearers of the earliest Mesopotamian territorial state (c. 2340–2100 BCE), which was simultaneously striving to gain control of the trade routes leading to the Mediterranean and to Anatolia. Following a period of domination by the mountain-dwelling Guti over parts of Babylonia, the (Neo-) Sumerian state of the third dynasty of Ur (2111–2003 BCE) was able to exercise control over almost all of Mesopotamia.

During the third dynasty of Ur, there was a renewed influx of Semitic-speaking groups from the northwest; they were called Amorites (Sumerian, mar-tu, “people of the west,” from a Babylonian perspective). They achieved a ruling position in many places in Babylonia and founded dynasties that played a role in the Old Babylonian period (during the first half of the second millennium BCE), for example in Isin and Larsa, Babylon, Eshnunna, and Mari. [See Amorites.] After struggles for hegemony by Isin and Larsa, Babylon under Hammurabi (1792–1750 BCE, the “middle” chronology) was able to conquer all of Babylonia as well as parts of northern Mesopotamia in about 1760 BCE. Nevertheless, under Hammurabi's successors Babylon once again declined in importance; in about 1594 BCE the city was conquered by the Hittites, who were advancing from Asia Minor. After their departure Babylon became the residence of a dynasty of non-Semitic immigrants, the Kassites (sixteenth–twelfth centuries BCE) who, however, both linguistically and culturally rapidly attached themselves to the Babylonian tradition. [See Kassites.] In the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BCE, there were struggles between Babylon and the expanding Middle Assyrian kingdom, as well as renewed conflicts with Elam (the state bordering Babylonia on the southeast), during the course of which Babylon temporarily came under Assyrian rule.

In the late second millennium BCE, the regional political systems collapsed. In conjunction with this, there was an increased immigration of new Semitic-speaking population groups, the Arameans, from the northwest. They intermingled with the existing population of Babylonia, who increasingly used Aramaic as their everyday language, while Babylonian remained the language of official cuneiform inscriptions and the learned tradition. Beginning in the ninth century BCE, Babylonia was repeatedly the object of Assyrian military campaigns; after the middle of the eighth century BCE it became a part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under its own kings; nevertheless, it repeatedly rebelled against its Assyrian overlords.


Babylonian Empire

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Babylon became the dominant power in the Near East under Nebuchadrezzar II (604–562 BCE), who was of Aramean(Chaldean) origin. By conquering all of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine, he became the founder of the Neo-Babylonian Empire; during his reign there was a large-scale expansion of his residence city, Babylon. In 539 BCE the troops of the Persian Achaemenid king Cyrus II conquered the city and all of Babylonia. Babylon remained a part of the Persian Empire until Alexander the Great conquered Babylonia In 331. In 323, Alexander died in Babylon, which he had wanted to make one of the capital cities of his empire. Even during the Seleucid and Parthian periods (third century BCE–second century CE) Babylonia was still able to preserve its own traditions, including the use of Babylonian and cuneiform writing (especially in mathematics and astronomy). Through the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines, as well as through Europe's encounters with the Arab-Islamic world, the substance of Babylonian tradition even made its way into European culture.

Language and Writing.

The history and culture of Babylonia were transmitted in a variety of languages and methods of writing. Sumerian and Semitic Akkadian (Babylonian-Assyrian) are the essential source languages. Whereas Sumerian began to die out as a colloquial language at the beginning of the second millennium, Akkadian continued to undergo further development through a series of stages: Old Babylonian (first half of the second millennium); Middle Babylonian (approximately the second half of the second millennium); Younger Babylonian (the literary language of the first half of the first millennium); New Babylonian (the language of the documents and letters in the first millennium up to about 625 BCE); and Late Babylonian (the language of learned texts during the Neo-Babylonian, Persian, Seleucid, and Arsacid/Parthian periods). Nevertheless, already in the early first millennium BCE, even in Babylonia, (West) Semitic Aramean began more and more to establish itself as the colloquial language; in the western Persian Empire it was used even for administrative purposes (Imperial Aramaic).

Both Sumerian and Akkadian used cuneiform writing (syllabic signs, word signs, and determiners). The three-dimensional cuneiform writing was pressed into wet clay with a stylus or chiseled into stone and metal. Aramaic, in contrast, used a linear system with an “alphabetic”) script that had developed in Syria-Palestine. It was, thus, suitable for writing on other materials as well, such as skins/parchment and papyrus. Information, about Babylonia also comes from the Hittite tradition in Asia Minor, from Egyptian inscriptions, from the books of Hebrew Bible, and from ancient authors writing in Greek or Latin. The majority of the cuneiform texts from Babylonia were transmitted in archives or libraries as well as on monuments and archaeological finds. Aramaic texts were only preserved when they were written on clay, stone, or other materials durable enough to withstand the climate of Mesopotamia. [See Sumerian; Akkadian; Aramaic Language and Literature; Cuneiform.]


The corpus of archaeological information about Babylonia and Babylonians essentially comes from the excavations that have been carried out in southern Mesopotamia since the middle of the nineteenth century. Especially in Babylon, Sippar, Isin, Larsa, Umma, Ur, Uruk, Nippur, and Girsu/Lagash, excavation has led to the discovery of textual materials, which have been supplemented by epigraphic finds from outside of Babylonia—from Mari on the Middle Euphrates and from Assyrian residences. Since the beginning of fieldwork, the methods of excavation—which originally were primarily concerned with obtaining interesting objects and often paid almost no attention to archaeological context—have been considerably refined. This is true not only for the exact scientific documentation but also with regard to the inclusion of research pertaining to the ancient environment, using methods from the natural sciences.

Economic Foundations.

Archaeological discoveries and the testimony of the texts provide an insight not only into historical tradition, literature, and religion, but also into the means of subsistence. In contrast to the Assyrian north, Babylonia is an alluvial plain, in which the small amount of rainfall (under 250–300 mm per year) makes agriculture possible only through the use of river water. In order to enlarge the amount of usable area, canals were dug leading away from the course of the river. Even kings considered extending the land through canals to be one of their most important functions. The lack of dependence on rainfall and the fertility of the soil favored large, regular harvests; nevertheless, from an early date the increasing salinity of the soil as a result of an inadequate flushing out of the water-born minerals and the high level of groundwater proved to be a problem. Declining harvests and the abandonment of crops requiring high levels of care, such as wheat, in favor of the more resistant barley were often the result. The acquisition of new farmland was therefore also an attempt at solving this problem, which often led to military conflict.

In addition to hoes, cattle-drawn plows were also used for tilling the soil, leading to the development of breaking plows and plows with seed guides (the latter enabled a sparing and regular application of the seed). The date palm was added to grains (wheat, emmer, and barley) and vegetables (especially onions and leeks) and became an important crop; southern Iraq is still one of the largest date-growing regions in the world. Vegetables and other useful plants were often grown in the area underneath the date trees. Fertilization of the soil could occur in conjunction with the grazing of the harvested areas by herds of livestock belonging to the landowners or to seminomadic groups.

In the raising of livestock, sheep and cattle played the most important role. The sheep were primarily kept to provide wool. The use of camels as working animals is first attested in the late second millennium BCE; at that time they played an especially important role in transport because they can carry quite large loads and cover great distances without water. Camel breeding was primarily carried out by seminomadic groups. In the final analysis, it was the camel that provided these groups with considerable independence from the settled population and made them desert dwellers (bedouin). Beginning in the middle of the second millennium, horses were used in Babylonia for drawing war chariots; it was only later that they were ridden. Mostly, however, they were raised in the cooler mountain regions of the Near East.

In the third millennium, the Babylonians were already specializing in crafts, which can be demonstrated from the textual evidence; they were working indigenous materials (clay, reeds, leather) and, increasingly, imported material. Special mention should be made of their textile and leather production, pottery, metalworking, and stoneworking. Because Babylonia was poor in raw materials, metals and stone—including gemstones—had to be brought into the country either through trade or as war booty. Wood was also imported because the indigenous species (especially palms and tamarisk) did not provide suitable construction material for large buildings, such as palaces and temples.

The Babylonians exchanged products locally and regionally, without special markets, but an exchange system extending beyond the regional area was already in place in the prestate period (before the third millennium). Once the Babylonians were organized in a city-state, or territorial state, this exchange became a wide-reaching foreign trade documented in temple, palace, and private archives. Although Babylonia's trade was originally oriented toward the east—toward the mountain countries that were rich in raw materials or toward the countries on the Persian Gulf—in the early second millennium BCE there was a demonstrable shift of emphasis toward the Mediterranean. New partners had emerged there in the palace economies of Crete and through the exploitation of the copper deposits on Cyprus. As early as the fourth millennium, an important trade route from the Euphrates to Syria and Asia Minor included spurs that branched off to the west through the Syrian desert steppe to Syria and the Mediterranean. Beginning in the late second millennium, the use of the camel as a transport animal even made it possible to cross the desert steppe south of Palmyra and to reach the Phoenician coastal cities via a direct route from Babylon. The direction and intensity of this trade contributed significantly to cultural contacts for the Babylonians with the Mediterranean area.

Organization of Society.

In the course of the approximately three millennia documented by the textual evidence, Babylonian society went through a considerable change, while preserving certain basic traits. The Early Dynastic period (c. 2800–2400 BCE) shows a city-state structure (a city with settlements on city territory) and a socially stratified population. Remnants of earlier political organizations, such as councils of elders, were subordinated to and made to serve the growing monarchical power. The temples lost their role as the central economic and political institutions to the palace. At the time of the territorial states of Akkad and Ur (c. 2400–2000 BCE), the authority of the ruler succeeded in establishing itself even against the aristocracies of the former city-states that had been incorporated. The deification of the kings, attested from Naram-Sin of Akkad (2259–2223 BCE) until the Old Babylonian period (early second millennium), served firmly to establish monarchical rule—the king joined the local divinities as the god of the country. Royal legislation points to the establishment of newer, state-regulated and controlled norms for community life, but at the same time hints at social tensions. The production of the means of earning a living was organized in the form of institutional (i.e., temple or palace) households, to which the individual “houses” were functionally and hierarchically assigned. The royal domains were at the same time centers for the distribution of goods in the form of rations (barley, oil, and other commodities).

The early Old Babylonian period (early second millennium) was characterized by the individualization of social relationships. From this time on, the palace economies represented themselves primarily as a sum total of smaller households, which worked parcels of land they had received subject to various conditions. In exchange they had to provide services in the form of work or produce. Payments in the form of produce could be excused for persons who paid corresponding sums of money to the palace as advance lump-sum payments. At the same time, the role of leasing land increased in the Old Babylonian period; family possession of land also seems to have expanded during then. The “edicts” (mīšarū) published by the Old Babylonian kings (generally at the beginning of their reigns) primarily signified debt relief, as well as the collection of laws into codices (especially the so-called code of Hammurabi). They should certainly also be understood as reactions to the economic and social problems that arose through the threat to the individual family as the foundation of production and the army.

In the Kassite period (c. second half of the second millennium), stone proclamations of gifts of land (kudurrus) point to the emergence of a larger private possession of land; nevertheless, this development does not seem to have advanced consistently. At any rate, in the Neo-Babylonian period (6th–5th centuries BCE) private possession of land did not play a dominant role. The temple and the palace controlled the possession of land and all important economic activities; but they left room for private involvement, as is expressed, for example, in the institution of general leasing, in which tenants of large estates (e.g., of temples) farmed out smaller areas to other tenants. Some of the Jews from Jerusalem who had been deported to Babylonia by Nebuchadrezzar II integrated themselves into this system at that time.

Art and Culture.

The Babylonians' methods of earning a living, recording history, and cultivating imagination found expression in their artistic and literary legacy. The late fourth and early third millennia were among the most creative periods. Many of the artistic means of expression and stylistic devices that emerged then remained basic over the centuries that followed. The most lasting achievement was undoubtedly the development by the Babylonians of a system of writing, which enabled the transmission of entire bodies of knowledge. Their architecture reflects the emergence of large communities with central cult sites, such as have been excavated especially in Ubaid, Uruk, and Tutub (Khafajeh), where strong city walls suggest an increase in hostile attacks. The method of construction was determined by the sun-dried mud brick, which, in the Early Dynastic periods, appeared in the so-called plano-convex variety.

The walls in religious buildings consisted of projections and indentations (Ubaid period, fourth millennium). To stabilize and decorate walls, the Babylonians pressed patterns of colored clay pegs into the plaster on the walls (Uruk period, early third millennium). Their temples developed from small, single-roomed structures to monumental buildings, in which the central cult room was surrounded by symmetrically arranged subsidiary rooms (Uruk period). Beginning in the Early Dynastic period (first quarter of the third millennium), the cult rooms became separate spaces, often situated at the end of a rather large series of rooms; cult practice for the masses took place entirely in the courtyards, however. The Early Dynastic buildings in Kish, Eshnunna, and Eridu that contained reception rooms can be described as palaces.

In the Uruk period a rich artistic tradition developed that is attested by realistically formed small figurines of humans and animals as well as reliefs on stone vessels and other items. In the Early Dynastic period a change in stylistic devices took place. Babylonian artists began to depict human figures in a more strongly stylized way. They provided their cult statuettes of praying figures with a cuneiform dedication; they created dedicatory plaques with scenes of banqueting or supplication; and they carved the earliest historical depictions (of wars, victories, festivals) in relief on stone slabs (the vulture stela of Eanatum, ruler of Lagash). The burials of members of the ruling houses, especially the royal graves from Ur, bear witness to sophisticated craftsmanship in metalworking, which already had a long tradition. Craftsmen fashioned copper, often alloyed with arsenic or tin, as well as gold and silver, into jewelry, vessels, weapons, and other objects by means of a casting process (sometimes the lost-wax method); they frequently combined metals with semiprecious stones, especially lapis lazuli. Large sculptures were partially modeled over a bitumen or wood core and thinly plated with copper, bronze, or gold (Ur, Ubaid). Soldering techniques were known and granulation techniques were developed.

During the Uruk period the Babylonians gradually replaced the stamp seal, which had been used since prehistoric times, with the cylinder seal, whose use spread into numerous regions of the Near East until the Neo-Babylonian period. The cylinder seal made it possible to represent many-figured scenes through a succession of pictures on a “rolling” seal. Sealing with clay allowed rooms and objects to be secured. Later, rolling a seal on a clay tablet became a technique of legal certification of one's personal presence or of one's office. The Babylonians took the design motifs of these seals, which changed throughout different periods of use, primarily from mythic and cultic realms. Archaeologists use them as “type-fossils” to date stratigraphic levels. [See Seals.]

Babylonian religious conceptualizations are mirrored in their visual arts and in inscriptions and mythical texts that were later committed to writing. Above all, to the Babylonians the gods incorporated whatever was necessary for the community's continued existence. The Babylonians conceived and depicted them anthropomorphically—as beings acting in human fashion. The epic tradition already told stories of heros who were, at the same time, or even predominantly, human beings (Gilgamesh stories). The contacts of the city-states with each other furthered the development of a pantheon, in which the local gods and goddesses were arranged according to rank and relationship; Enlil, son of the father of the gods; Anum, or god, rose to the top and ruled the universe with the help of “specialized” divinities. The Babylonians served their gods, providing them with food and drink and honored them in religious processions or through prayer; for this they expected a service in return. At the same time, however, they also sought to understand their natural environment and to arrange it in lists according to conceptual groups. The Babylonians observed the heavenly bodies in respect to the calendar. In laying out and measuring their fields for agriculture they used and developed their astronomical and mathematical knowledge.

In Babylonia the late third millennium was marked by the territorial states of Akkad and Ur. While the residence of the ruler of Akkad has not yet been discovered, Ur has provided proof of extensive building activity. The stepped temple (ziggurat) developed from temples on terraces and continued to be built until into the Neo-Babylonian period. The transition to a broad-room cella with an altar and a cult statue in a niche was an innovation. In contrast to the temple, the palaces appeared to be independent architectural complexes. Essentially they represent enlarged residential houses inasmuch as they, like the courtyard house, were oriented toward the inside with closed, windowless exteriors. Sun-dried clay remained the predominant building material, but formed into rectangular bricks. Figurines (terra cottas) of humans and animals were less and less frequently formed by hand, but were pressed in molds. Large-scale sculpture concentrated on representations of rulers; these show excellent knowledge of anatomy and a good mastery of stone-working techniques in such hard stone as diorite. Battle scenes predominate in Babylonian relief carvings (cf. the Naram-Sin stela) in which the heroic ruler is shown subjugating defeated peoples. In the Ur III period (late third millennium BCE), scenes of supplication once more came to the fore in increased numbers—a development also found in the glyptic arts. Frequently, an “initiation scene” is depicted, in which the worshiper is portrayed holding the hand of an intermediary protector god before the throne of the chief god. In literature, in addition to hymns to the gods, hymns to the kings appear as a new genre. From the time of Naram-Sin of Akkad until the Old Babylonian period, the deification of some rulers is also known. They appeared as the gods of the state in contrast to the local gods of the subjugated former city-states. Eventually, through the process of integration and merging, the number of gods in the Babylonian pantheon was gradually reduced.

The Old Babylonian period (first half of the second millennium) is still relatively poor in architectural remains. In Babylon itself, the high level of the groundwater has prevented the excavation of the architecture of Hammurabi's dynasty. Contemporary Mari, on the Middle Euphrates, may be the best-researched example for that period. Remains of palace buildings have been found in Old Babylonian Larsa, Uruk, and possibly also in Eshnunna. Temple buildings are demonstrated in many places, and at Šaduppum (Tell Harmal), near Baghdad, an Old Babylonian city, and at Ur, residential quarters are recognizable.

Three-dimensional sculpture and reliefs are still scantily represented; the best known is the stela of Hammurabi with the laws, which shows the king in a gesture of supplication before the sun god Shamash, a monument actually found in the Elamite city of Susa. The terra-cotta reliefs typical of the Old Babylonian period occur in great numbers, however, offering an impression of the treasure trove of motifs from this period and reflecting the literary transmissions. In the glyptic arts, it is interesting that initiation scenes more often show the worshiper directly before the enthroned godhead, suggesting perhaps a greater sense of self-worth on the part of the human being.

This concept may also be reflected in the literature of this period, above all in the Gilgamesh epic, in which the search for eternal youth is a leitmotif. That human beings, in contrast to the gods, grow old and die contributed to existential doubts and to the search for explanations in other compositions as well, leading to a fully developed omen literature as well as to doubts about the righteousness of the world order established by the gods. The city god of Babylon, Marduk, began to play an important role among the divinities of the Babylonian pantheon during the Old Babylonian period.

With respect to its architecture, the Kassite period in Babylonia (c. second half of the second millennium BCE) is best known through the excavations at Dur Kurigalzu (modern ῾Aqar Quf), whose ziggurat is still an impressive ruin. From Kassite Uruk comes the temple facade of bricks that depicts the water divinities in high relief. In sculpture the so-called kudurrus are noteworthy; in addition to the text of a land transfer, these stone proclamations reproduce the symbols of the divine witnesses and also continue to be manufactured in the following period. In the literary tradition, the Kassite period primarily preserved and refined what had been handed down; the Gilgamesh stories, for example, were formatted into a coherent epic. The city god of Babylon, Marduk, rose to the top of the pantheon.

While there was already a recognizable separation between the literary language and the popular language of the Babylonians, in the Kassite period this development continued in the period of Assyrian dominance, as Aramaic probably more and more became the Babylonians' colloquial language. In their official inscriptions and learned tradition, however, the Babylonians continued to use the Babylonian language and cuneiform writing, the tradition, essentially, by which they are known today. It is not until the Neo-Babylonian period (604–539 BCE) that the architecture and art of the Babylonians are again better attested. At that time Nebuchadrezzar II had the city of Babylon rebuilt as his splendid residence city. In the process, large colored glazed bricks were used to cover the walls. In his official inscriptions, Nebuchadrezzar consciously affiliated himself with the Old Babylonian period, when a fairly sizable empire had similarly been ruled from Babylon.

[See also Akkade; ῾Aqar Quf; Babylon; Eridu; Eshnunna; Girsu and Lagash; Isin; Kassites; Khafajeh; Kish; Larsa; Mari; Nippur; Sumerians; Ubaid; Ur; Uruk-Warka; and Ziggurat. In addition, see Mesopotamia, article on Ancient Mesopotamia.]


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Evelyn Klengel-Brandt Translated from German by Susan I. Schiedel